Amherst officials to craft questions for potential school committee candidates at Monday meeting

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 09-10-2023 11:48 AM

AMHERST — Questions that will be asked to prospective candidates interested in serving on the Amherst School Committee through this fall, and into early 2024, will be developed and possibly finalized at a joint meeting of the Town Council and remaining two school committee members Monday.

The meeting, at 5:30 p.m. at Town Hall and also in virtual format, will include a discussion on a series of questions that may be asked at a Sept. 26 meeting, when the councilors and school committee members, Jennifer Shiao and Irv Rhodes, could vote on adding three new school committee members. Monday’s meeting will also figure out how the appointments should happen, with those interested needing to receive a majority of the 15 votes that could be cast.

An additional joint meeting could be held Oct. 2 if interviews and appointments are not finalized by that date.

Candidate statements of interest, no more than 700 words, are due to Athena O’Keeffe, clerk of the Town Council, by Sept. 20 at 4 p.m. Those statements are to describe why the candidate is interested in serving out the remaining term. Statements of interest shall also include the candidate’s name, address of voter registration, email and at least one telephone number.

The need to appoint new members came after Ben Herrington, Allison McDonald and Peter Demling recently resigned, and comes prior to the Nov. 7 town election, when those who may seek to be appointed would not be listed as an incumbent.

A memo from Council President Lynn Griesemer sent on Wednesday outlines some of the process, including opening remarks, reasons for application, the understanding of the role of the school committee in hiring decisions, curriculum development and hearing complaints of teachers, the role of the superintendent, and concluding remarks.

The current situation comes as a Title IX investigation and associated investigations related to treatment of LGTBQ students at the middle school are underway. Even before the report is complete, Superintendent Michael Morris stepped down, calling his leadership untenable and that, while there was no wrongdoing, there was a lack of trust in him. The circumstances have also led to three middle school counselors being placed on leave, as well as the assistant superintendent in charge of human resources. Douglas Slaughter, the school’s fiannce chief, is serving as temporary superintendent for the school year.

Those appointed to the Amherst School Committee could be involved in beginning the process of hiring a permanent superintendent and early budget preparation.

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Among the 14 questions Griesemer includes in her memo are, “What do you think is one strength and one area for improvement in Amherst Elementary and Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools?” “How will you help to make sure that the school committee’s practices, processes, and decisions, are anti-racist?” and “What is your understanding of the legal constraints about what school committee members can and can’t do in situations involving Title IX investigation?”

It’s uncertain how much interest there will be in the positions, though the two incumbents and six other residents have picked up nomination forms for the election.

All three of those who resigned from the committee, in interviews with the “Talk the Talk” program on radio station WHMP hosted by Bill Newman and Buz Eisenberg, elaborated on their reasons to depart. McDonald called her recent time on the committee “water torture. It’s just drip after drip after drip” and explained how she was confronted and verbally assaulted by an educator.

Demling said resentment and verbal attacks have become commonplace in town, contending that the charter change in 2018 that eliminated representative Town Meeting as the legislature has compounded the problems.

“It lent itself to domination of a vocal minority willing to engage in this kind of behavior in Town Meeting,” Demling said.

Herrington said there has been “vitriol” and what he characterized as a lot of unreasonable conversation coming from people who have been arguing with each other for years.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>